Presbyterian Church in Duluth (Early History)

The Presbyterian church of Duluth can justly boast of being one of the wealthiest and most influential in the life of the city.

It is also among the oldest. While the Episcopal church holds the honor of having erected the first church edifice in the city, the Presbyterians were only a few months behind them. The Presbyterians also justly take pride in the pioneer record of their church. Their missionaries were in Minnesota as early as 1834, and they were the architects in the formation of the written Dakota Indian language. The Dakota bible, as we now have it, was the work of three of these men, Thomas S. Williamson, Stephen R. Riggs and Mr. G. H. Pond, a lay worker. It was a work that occupied them over twenty years.

The organization of the Presbyterian church in Duluth dates from 1869. Previous to that time all religious services in the town were held as union meetings, and the people of the town would join in them regardless of their denominational leanings or affiliations. William Higgins, a Presbyterian minister at Superior, would sometimes come over to Duluth and hold services and occasionally some of the missionaries who were laboring among the Indians would visit the settlement, but there was no such thing as regular services. With the influx of population that came in 1869 came many men and women from states farther east who held to Presbyterian affiliations, and by the latter part of the year these had so increased in numbers that it was decided to organize and erect an edifice. Plans were drawn for a building, and a site obtained on the northwest corner of Third avenue east and Second street. The Presbyterians of 598 the town were canvassed for funds and pledges of $10, 000 were obtained and work was begun in the fall of that year.

In the meantime a storeroom had been rented on Superior street and fitted up as a temporary church, and here services were held every Sunday, an arrangement having been made with Mr. Higgins by which he came over from Superior Sunday afternoons.

The first board of trustees of the society consisted of Dr. Thomas Foster, the editor of the “Minnesotian”; William Nettleton, who was largely interested in lands and lumbering; Luke Marvin, postmaster; John C. Hunter, one of the early fur traders; W. N.

Wyncoop and Albert N. Seip. Of this first board the only one now living is Mr. Seip, who has interests in Duluth, but who for some years has resided in Washington. The widow of John C. Hunter is still living in Duluth and is a member of the First church. It was not until 1871 that the church edifice was completed and services held in it. When this building was begun the population of Duluth was about 450, and when completed it had increased to about 2, 000.

In a letter written in 1871 to a friend in Pennsylvania by Luke Marvin, who, with John C. Hunter, was one of the elders of the First church, the elder draws a rather discouraging picture of the conditions confronting the new congregation. He writes as follows: “Owing to the propensity so common among architects to underestimate the cost of their work, and perhaps owing somewhat to the increase in cost of labor and materials, we find ourselves with the church erected and a debt on our hands of about $6, 000.

We have the pews in the church, but our floor is bare, without carpet or matting. In the basement we have a Sunday schoolroom and lecture room, but the walls and ceilings are unplastered.

We do not feel that we ought to spend more money or incur further obligations for any purpose until we have reduced our indebtedness.” But the ensuing two years were a season of expansion for Duluth, and the congregation grew rapidly and the money to pay off the indebtedness was not only soon raised, but enough more was obtained to complete the furnishing and finishing of the building. But in the meantime it had obtained a regular pastor, George Sluter, who relieved Mr. Higgins in the latter part of 1869. Mr. Sluter served the church until 1871, when he was succeeded by Rev. E. P. Heberton, who served until 1875.

The years from 1873 to 1879 were hard years for the church.

The panic of 1873 had put a temporary end to railroad construction and paralyzed all development work. The town, instead of growing, was decreasing in population, and the church suffered in proportion to the town. Its membership dwindled by the removal of many of its parishioners, but those who remained never lost their confidence in the ultimate recovery of the town from the depression which it was experiencing, and kept the church going and free from debt. It was a hard struggle for the infant congregation and entailed many hardships on the members, which were cheerfully met. In 1875 there was another change of pastors, Mr. Heberton being succeeded by Daniel Rice, D. D., and the latter served until the close of 1879.

The faith and constancy of the membership was rewarded, for in 1879 the membership of the church grew at a rapid rate, and from that time its career has been one of continued prosperity.

In 1880 Rev. William A. Fleming succeeded Dr. Rice in the pastorate and served until 1882.

There is an old saying to the effect that “the nation that is not occupied in making history is growing in prosperity and wealth.” The reverse is true of the church. It makes its history while growing in membership and prosperity, and when it cannot do this is in a moribund condition. In the years from 1880 to 1890 the First Presbyterian church was making all kinds of history. Under the successive pastorates of Henry C. Minton, D. D.. who served from 1882 to 1884, and A. W. Ringland, D. D., whose pastorate continued to 1892, the church thrived in the most abundant manner. It soon found the capacity of its structure inadequate for its needs and that a larger one must be supplied.

It acquired ownership of the lot on Second street diagonally across from its old location, and in 1890 the cornerstone of the present beautiful church edifice was laid. The building was completed and dedicated on December 20, 1891. The total expense for the church building, site and furnishing of the structure was a little short of $98, 000, and of this sum nearly the entire amount was contributed by the members of the congregation, and was paid during the building of the church. At the time of the dedication there was a mortgage indebtedness of $25, 000 on the property, but this has since been entirely wiped out.

In June, 1894, Rev. Thomas tI. Cleland succeeded Dr. Ringand as the pastor, serving until 1906, and in May, 1907, Campbell Coyle, D. D., took charge of the church, leaving in December, 1909, to accept a pastorate in Pittsburg. The society is at present without a pastor. It has a fine parsonage on First street, in one of the choice residence sections of the city.

The present organization of the church is as follows: Elders -Rev. J. A. McGaughey, moderator by appointment of the Presbytery; T. F. Upham, clerk of session; F. E. Potter, William Gow, Charles M. Wilson, Thomas Thorburn, Frank E. House, J. N. St. Clair, Luke A. Marvin, E. T. Buxton, K. C. Iloxie, George Wilson and R. W. Bowden. Deacons-S. S. Williamson, chairman; S. W. Richardson, A. C.Yolk, G. D. Negley, T. F. Upham and F. G. Callan. Trustees-W. C. Agnew, chairman; A. J. McLennan, James T. Hale, Thomas F. McNaught, George W. Buck, F. H. White, John A. Stephenson, W. C. Winton and W.. . Hoyt.

In the matter of church activities this organization is well equipped. The various societies include: The Bible Schools, the Forward Guild, the Ladies’ Society, the Brotherhood, the Woman’s Missionary Society, Christian Endeavor and the Order of Deaconnesses. George IH. Claypool is secretary of the board of trustees and church treasurer. Dr. R. W. Bowden is superintendent of the large Sunday school. The charitable work of the church is large and cases of distress are relieved without regard to the creed of the sufferer. All the pews in the church are free, the revenue being entirely derived from voluntary contributions.

In addition to the liberal contributions the church makes to the foreign missionary work of the general church organization, it has for some years maintained a mission of its own in China.

This it calls “Our Parish Abroad, ” and it is located at Siangton, Hunan, China. Rev. ‘W. H. Lingle is the missionary in charge, and his labors among the Chinese have been blessed with most gratifying success, the mission now numbering a large number of converts. All the expenses of maintaining this mission are defrayed by the First church of Duluth.

With the expansion of the city and the consequent enlargement of its resident areas the Presbyterian population of Duluth found itself getting farther and farther from the parent church. It must be remembered that Duluth is twenty-five miles long and anywhere from a mile to a mile and a half wide. So in time other Presbyterian churches sprang up as a consequence 601  of the hegira of the members of the First church, until there are now seven other prosperous Presbyterian churches in the city, all with good sized congregations, handsomely housed in their own places of worship, all prosperous and well out of debt.

These seven churches are: The Glen Avon church, Rev. John C. Faries, pastor; the Hazlewood Park church, pulpit vacant; the Highland Park church, Rev. J. G. Leitch, pastor; the House of Hope church, Rev. Peter Knudson, pastor; the Lakeside church, Rev. Henry B. Sutherland, pastor; the Second church, pulpit vacant, and the Westminster church, Rev. J. G. Leitch, pastor.

Next to the First, the Glen Avon church is probably the wealthiest church in the Presbytery. It is situated in the east end of the city and in the midst of choice residence section. A few years ago this section was waste ground, with hardly a house upon it. Among one of the first men to foresee the scenic and other advantages of this section of the city was A. R. Macfarlane, an enthusiastic and consistent Presbyterian and a son-in-law of John C. Hunter, one of the first elders and trustees of the First church. Mr. Macfarlane moved out to Glen Avon and built himself a fine home. I-e deplored his distance from the First church and resolved to have a church in his immediate neighborhood.

He bought a plot of ground, erected a convenient house of worship, engaged a pastor and for a few years defrayed almost the entire expenses of the church. After the neighborhood had begun to settle up and the nucleus of a Presbyterian congregation had gathered, Mr. Macfarlane donated the church and land to it.

The present Glen Avon church is the successor of that first edifice.

The old church structure was carefully taken down before the present building was erected and shipped to one of the towns on the Iron Range, where it was put together and is now the home of a prosperous congregation.

The Lakeside church, which is also much farther east, has this year celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its establishment.

The membership of the various Presbyterian churches of Duluth is about 1, 600 in full connection, but besides these there is a large and regular attendance, so that the effective strength of the denomination in the city can be placed at about 10, 000. During the last year these churches contributed $3, 000 to home missions and the same sum to foreign missions. They also contributed $1, 800 to the educational institutions of the church in the state. The congregational expenses of the churches in the city amounted to $35, 000, this including the upkeep of church property and the various salaries.

In the strength of its membership the Presbyterian church is -especially noteworthy, and its influence in the affairs of the community is far greater than its numerical strength would lead one to suppose. Its membership is not only wealthy, but liberal and patriotic, taking a keen interest in all that pertains to the welfare of their church or the community, and spending its money lavishly to obtain the best.

The old church edifice of the First Presbyterian church is still standing, having been sold after the erection of the present structure to a German Roman Catholic congregation. That, and the Episcopal church of St. Paul, which is also standing, were the first two church structures erected in Duluth, and in their day were considered wonderful specimens of architecture, as well as being the largest buildings in the city by far.

From Dwight Woodbridge and John Pardee’s History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1910.

Presbyterian Church in Duluth (Early History)

Reference has been made in earlier chapters to earlier activities of the Presbyterian Church Society on the North Shore, but it is stated that “the organization of the Presbyterian Church in Duluth dates from 1869,” in which year the pioneer Presbyterian societies, of the old and new school, “happily united”; and soon, with ever-increasing numbers, the united Presbyterian church societies organized “to erect an edifice.” Plans were drawn in 1869, and it was decided to build on the northwest corner of Third Avenue East and Second Street. The subscription list circulated brought money and pledges to $10,000, in all, and the work of construction was begun “in the fall of that year,” 1869.

As a temporary church, a rented storeroom on Superior Street was used, and for a few weeks services were conducted every Sunday afternoon by the Rev. William Higgins, Presbyterian minister, of Superior. He held Superior services morning and evening of Sabbaths.

Of the united and reorganized Duluth Presbyterian Society the following constituted the first board of trustees: Dr. Thomas Foster, editor of the “Minnesotian”; William Nettleton, Luke Marvin, John C. Hunter, W. N. Wyncopp, and Albert N. Seip.

Before the end of 1869, the Duluth Presbyterians had obtained a regular pastor, the Rev. George Sluter relieving Mr. Higgins. Mr. Sluter remained until 1871, the next pastor being Rev. E. P. Heberton, who was succeeded in 1875 by Daniel Rice, D.D.

It would seem that there was a delay in completing the church, probably owing to financial difficulties, a letter written by Luke Marvin, one of the elders, in 1871, indicating that all of the financial pledges made in 1869 were not kept. He wrote: Owing to the propensity so common among architects to underestimate the cost of their work, and perhaps owing somewhat to the increase in cost of labor and materials, we find ourselves with the church erected and a debt on our hands of about $6,000. We have the pews in the church, but our floor is bare, without carpet or matting. In the basement we have a Sunday school room and lecture room, but the walls and ceilings are unplastered.

We do not feel that we ought to spend more money or incur further obligations for any purpose until we have reduced our indebtedness.

While the honor that goes with the achievement of building the pioneer church in Duluth has been earned by the Episcopalian society, the Presbyterian society was the first organized on the North Shore, the Rev. Mr. Wilson preaching first at Oneota in the winter of 1855. A fellow-pastor at Superior, the Rev. J. M. Barnett, who ministered to the “Old School” branch Presbyterians at the Head of the Lakes, 1855-61, wrote: I preached my first sermon in Duluth on the 20th of July (1856) in a small unfinished house on the point, occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Fred Ryder, to a congregation of twelve adults and some four boys. Twenty-five years later I preached the same sermon to the First Presbyterian congregation in a neat frame church on the mainland. Twenty-three years later than that I preached to the same text to the First Presbyterian congregation of Duluth, in an $80,000 stone building.

So did the Presbyterians of Duluth emerge successfully from the incubus of debt with which the early trustees grappled.


  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.
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